A Guide To The Different Types Of Counselors

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

When deciding to participate in therapy, it can be beneficial to consider the effective and ineffective counseling characteristics for the type of mental health professional to consult. For example, you might want to see a guidance counselor, family therapist, or social worker. As the mental health field grows, several types of psychotherapy and professionals have emerged. With more options than ever, including those related to LPC meaning, it might seem overwhelming to choose. If you're unsure about a particular option, such as therapy, don't hesitate to ask questions like "What does IPC stand for?" to help you make an informed decision.

While all clinical professionals meet similar clinical requirements for competency, each mental health profession has its own specific training requirements, and some have a specific specialty. Learning more about each type of counselor and knowing how to find the right counseling services can help you make an informed decision when choosing someone to work with.

Getty/AnnaStills
Are you confused about how to find the best counselor for "you"?

Different types of counselor specialists

Much like the extensive list of doctor specialties, and types of counseling such as family counseling, grief counseling, or treatment for substance use disorder (formerly called substance abuse disorder), the list of counselors like certified counselors, guidance counselors, rehabilitation counselors, and school counselors can also be extended. However, all counselors can offer mental health support regardless of who you visit or what treatment you choose. Seeing a counselor, in general, can offer benefits.

For some, therapy may seem embarrassing or scary. However, over 41.7 million individuals see a therapist in the US, and you are not alone. If you're feeling uncertain about your counseling journey, let your therapist know; they can help you feel more comfortable in your sessions.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW)

Clinical social workers are counselors who receive advanced training in assessing, diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental health disorders and other behavioral issues. They might also have training in social causes like community aid and humanitarian work. Aspiring counselors in counseling programs have more clinical experience than professional social workers who are not trained in clinical work. These providers have completed the required master's program in social work (MSW), internship, and post-graduate supervision hours, and have passed a national exam.

Clinical social workers provide support to prevent, diagnose, and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders in individuals, families, and groups. They aim to enhance and maintain their clients’ physical, psychological, and social functions. Clinical social workers must have a master's or doctorate in social work, emphasizing clinical experience. They must undergo a supervised clinical field internship and have at least two years of post-graduate supervised clinical social work employment.

Licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) and licensed professional counselor (LPC)

A mental health counselor's career path is explicitly geared toward clinical assessment, treatment, and psychotherapy. Mental health counselors receive training in mental health issues, psychotherapy, and clinical intervention services. Those pursuing counseling careers as licensed mental health counselors must complete a master's program, internship, and post-graduate supervision hours. Licensed mental health counselors are also required to pass a state licensing exam.

Clinical mental health counseling is a distinct profession with national standards for education, training, and clinical practice. These professionals, often providing support in one on one practices or other settings, are highly skilled and provide flexible, consumer-oriented therapy. They combine traditional psychotherapy with a practical, problem-solving approach that creates a dynamic and efficient path for change and problem resolution, helping clients develop strategies and keeping detailed records to track client progress.

Clinical mental health counselors offer a full range of services, including:

  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Psychotherapy
  • Treatment planning and utilization review
  • Brief and solution-focused therapy
  • Substance use treatment
  • Psychoeducational and prevention programs
  • Crisis management

In today's environment, clinical mental health counselors are qualified to meet the challenges of providing high-quality care cost-effectively. CMHCs have a foundational skill set distinct from other behavioral health disciplines. Their training in addressing the whole person's needs and wellness and prevention makes them well-situated to lead the effort in integrating health care. 

Graduate education and clinical training prepare clinical mental health counselors to provide a full range of services for individuals, couples, families, adolescents, and children. Licensure requirements for clinical mental health counseling are equivalent to those for clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists, two other types of counseling careers that require a master's degree for independent status.

A licensed clinical mental health counselor has met or exceeded the following professional qualifications:
  • Earned a master's degree in counseling 
  • Completed a minimum of two years post-master clinical work under the supervision of a licensed or certified mental health professional
  • Passed a state-developed or national licensure or certification examination

Whether you are living with a mental illness or experiencing issues navigating life, a professional mental health counselor may help you.

Getty/AnnaStills

Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT)

Marriage and family therapists focus on relationship, marital, and family conflicts related to mental health. They often work with married couples, parents, children, siblings, and other families to address family dynamics and tackle interpersonal issues, such as divorce, communication, and parenting. The training of a marriage and family therapist is similar to other mental health professionals, requiring a master's level education in mental health and clinical supervision hours, followed by a clinical exam.

Distinctive from a licensed social worker (LSW) and a licensed professional counselor (LPC), a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT or MFT) is a rigorously trained mental health care professional that works to understand mental health within the context of family and social environments, such as in school counseling or many different types of therapeutic settings. Often referred to as systems therapists, marriage and family therapists treat groups as systems with individual parts. Whether the client is an individual, a couple, or a family, the goal is to change problematic, repetitive interactions that either contribute to or continue to allow unwanted cycles. 

A family orientation and rigorous training requirements make LMFTs uniquely qualified to provide mental health services to these groups. LMFTs are trained in various modes of therapy to prepare them for this work. The training of LMFTs includes live supervision by experienced LMFTs. 

Marriage and family therapy is often cost-effective, short-term, and results-oriented. Clients report high satisfaction with marriage and family therapists, experiencing significant improvements in interpersonal relationships, emotional well-being, and physical health.

Clinical psychologists (Ph.D. or PsyD)

A clinical psychologist is a mental health professional who has typically received a doctoral degree in psychology. However, they cannot prescribe medication. A clinical psychologist is generally focused on treating mental health conditions. Like other mental health professionals, such as grief counselors and rehabilitation counselors, clinical psychologists are trained in assessment, diagnosis, and therapeutic practice. They can offer different types of therapy support and counseling as school counselor, rehabilitation counselor or other roles (though these responsibilities are often given to those practicing counseling psychology, as opposed to clinical psychology). However, they may have more experience in a particular specialty and the mental health field overall. They may charge more for their services due to this experience.

Psychiatrists (MD)

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have received advanced training and education in mental health and psychiatric disorders. Psychiatrists often focus on medication management by prescribing psychotropic medication. However, many do not offer counseling services. Instead, you might expect to meet with a psychologist for your therapy and a psychiatrist for medication management. 

Psychiatrists can provide traditional mental health treatment and talk therapy, and many do. However, ask your psychiatrist what services they offer if you're looking for therapy instead of medication or diagnosis. 

Other types of counselor specialists

There are other types of counselors with varying expertise and focus. For example, admissions counselors provide a specific type of school counseling, helping students navigate the college application process; and a rehabilitation counselor may support individuals with disabilities to live independently and achieve their personal and professional goals. Additionally, professionals in career services provide guidance on job searching and career development, assisting clients with job placement and networking opportunities.

How to prepare for counseling 

Having the knowledge about who to consult can be beneficial. However, you might not find it helpful if unprepared for counseling. Below are several tips to help you enter a successful therapeutic relationship with a provider. 

Determine your reason for seeking support 

Knowing what you are experiencing and why you seek support can help your counselor understand how to treat your concerns. Counselors can provide guidance and support for challenges ranging from mental illness to general life stress. In your first intake session with a provider, consider having a list of your symptoms or concerns handy to start the discussion. Your therapist might also ask you questions to further understand why you've reached out. Anyone can attend therapy, regardless of their diagnostic status or symptoms. Therapy is not only for mental illness. 

Be open-minded to receiving treatment

Therapy might not work for everyone. However, being unwilling or closed off to treatment may hurt your chances of success. If you are resistant to accepting the course of treatment that your therapist recommends, don't believe that therapy works, or are unwilling to let your therapist explore your symptoms, therapy might be ineffective. Try to come with an open mind. Therapists are there to guide you, and a lot of the work comes from the steps you take in treatment. 

Bring questions 

Ensuring a suitable therapist may help you get the most out of treatment. Before you attend therapy, consider having a list of questions prepared for your therapist. For example, you could ask them:

  • What are your qualifications and relevant experience?
  • How do you go about treating my specific symptoms? 
  • What does an average session look like?
  • What approach do you take to treatment? 
  • What method of treatment do you specialize in? Why is it best for my concerns? 

After having an initial consultation with your therapist, you may determine if they are qualified to treat your concerns or if you feel you might find a more suitable fit elsewhere. It might signify a need to switch therapists if you feel uncomfortable with your provider. 

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Are you confused about how to find the best counselor for "you"?

Counseling options 

If you're ready to start counseling, many options are available. You can consider searching online for a therapist in your area, asking your insurance company for recommendations, or getting a referral from your primary doctor. If you don't have insurance or face barriers to treatment, you can also consider seeing a therapist online.  

Studies show that online therapy can be an effective treatment for a broad array of symptoms. In one broad-based review, the benefits of online therapy were evaluated. Researchers results from over 90 studies—including almost 10,000 participants—on issues ranging from panic and anxiety to smoking cessation and body changes. Researchers concluded that internet-based counseling was as effective as in-person methods when treating anxiety, depression, and everyday challenges. 

With online therapy platforms like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a therapist after filling out a brief questionnaire. The questionnaire will ask about your symptoms, reasons for seeking treatment, and preferences for a therapist. After submitting your payment, you can be matched with a provider that meets your needs in as little as 48 hours, removing the overwhelm of finding a provider. When you are matched, you don't have to consider which therapist might be best for you. However, you can switch providers anytime if your match doesn't fit. 

Counselor reviews

“In only one month of therapy with Michal, I was able to discover a lot of aspects of myself. She was skillful in asking all the right questions and targeting the core issues and problems. The video sessions were very comforting, I felt connected immediately, and the conversations were well rounded, focused, and efficient. We managed to cover all of my main concerns. Moreover, Michal provided me with extra material, tools, and techniques to rely on when I am experiencing difficulties, and those techniques are already changing my everyday life. I feel very fortunate that I had the chance to work with Michal.”

“Heather is very easy to talk to and very sincere. She patiently listened to me describe what I felt was such a multi-layered, complex situation that I feared I’d never be able to find my way out of. However, she was able to very quickly identify the underlying problem at the heart of it all. I feel less overwhelmed, more in control of my life & my relationships. I know that I can reach out to her if I find myself struggling, at any time between scheduled appointments. And I complete every appointment feeling less anxious, more hopeful for my future, & better able to accomplish the things I’d been too overwhelmed to do previously. I have told families & friends about my satisfaction with BetterHelp, as a service that provides ease (being able to work with my counselor from home & not worrying I’ll have to cancel an appointment if health issues flare) & is a wonderful value for the extremely reasonable monthly fee. My counselor checks in with me on an almost daily basis, which provides a reassurance just knowing she’s there if I need her. I have seen a handful of counselors in the past, and they were all very kind, but I did not feel confident in their actual ability to help. This is not the case with Heather. I believe her treatment plan is on point, realistic, and will be effective. Most of all, I feel that I will be in a much better place mentally/emotionally and in my close relationships as a result of the work I am doing with Heather.”

Takeaway

Being more aware of what goes into a counselor's education, the different types of counselors that are available, and how they might be able to help you can allow you to get more out of therapy. If you're interested in finding professional support, consider contacting a therapist for further guidance and research-based advice.
Receive evidence-based counseling
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started